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Phillip Island is home to approximately 70,000 little penguins, also known as fairy penguins and blue penguins, owing to their slate-colored plumage. (Photograph courtesy of Phillip Island Nature Parks)

Where to See the Smallest Penguins on Earth

The Penguin Parade—where thousands of little penguins emerge from the ocean like clockwork at sunset to return to their burrows on Phillip Island, a mere 80-mile drive from Melbourne—is one of Australia’s star tourist attractions.

Given the popularity of the nightly march, I was worried about a theme-park vibe. But when I saw the first group of penguins come waddling out of the ocean, determined and adorable, I drew a giddy breath. It was just plain awesome.

When I was there in November, a strange phenomenon had occurred. The penguins, which are only found in southern Australia and New Zealand, typically breed once a year, in October, but, due to unseasonably warm waters, the island had seen its first chicks in late August and was preparing for a second brood.

“This is very unusual,” Roland Pick at Phillip Island Nature Parks, the organization that oversees the parade, told me. “[The penguins are] incredibly sensitive to changes in sea surface temperatures.”

After learning about some of their other characteristics, I couldn’t help but anthropomorphize the diminutive seabirds. “They may pair up for life, or just a season or two,” Roland said. “If the males aren’t good breeders, the [females] kick them out. We even call it the divorce rate when they split up.”

Some may grumble that the parade puts the penguins on unnecessary display, especially because the animals are so sensitive. But, as Roland explained: “If we didn’t have the visitors center [where the nightly procession takes place], the colony wouldn’t be here now.”

Little penguins have bred for thousands of years along the Phillip Island coastline, but when the rural island was connected to mainland Victoria by a bridge in 1939, the interest in the penguins—and in owning beachside property on the island—skyrocketed.

Eventually, in 1985, the Victorian government decided to halt all new development and begin buying back private homes at Summerland Beach in order to save the penguin rookery that we see there today.

Phillip Island may be best known for these little creatures, but there is plenty to do during the day before the sunset march.

Save time to hop the bridge for lunch at the Churchill Island Heritage Farm. Work up your appetite by participating in daily agricultural activities like sheep shearing and cow milking, then hit the stand-out on-site cafe for a bite with a bucolic view.

The island also boasts a brand-new interactive exhibit located on its western extremity called “Antarctic Journey” that had me as ecstatic as an 8-year-old.

When you look out toward the Nobbies, a stunning rock formation that is home to Australia’s largest brown fur seal colony, it’s incredible to think that the next stop is basically Antarctica.

The exhibit uses advanced virtual reality to make visitors feel as if they’re in the middle of Earth’s southernmost continent. You can see yourself on an ice platform with penguins and whales and even “feel the freeze” in a chilled room.

The Koala Conservation Centre, where you can roam on the boardwalks to get an up-close look at the eucalyptus-munching marsupials in the wild, is also worth a quick visit.

Before the penguin procession gets underway, I’d recommend dinner at Youki’s, a Japanese tapas restaurant. The cafeteria-style seating and bright lights don’t compete with the incredibly fresh sushi and teriyaki bowls on offer.

After the main event, as the light faded to total darkness, I was happy to return to Glen Isla House, a heritage bed-and-breakfast with beautiful gardens and a short path to the beach run by Ian and Madeleine Baker, who both exude a twinkly-eyed hospitality.

“Marrying Madeleine was the best decision of my life,” Ian told me. They’ve been together for 44 years.

After spending years traveling the world and gathering inspiration from the properties where they had stayed, the couple decided Phillip Island was in need of a delightful small hotel and hatched a plan.

Ian, a former business exec, enrolled in cooking school for three years and ended up apprenticing under his son, Martin, an accomplished chef himself.

His training brings an unexpected level of culinary sophistication to the small B&B—a fact I experienced in the morning with one of the best meals of my entire trip through Victoria. Ian prepared poached eggs and grilled bacon sourced from the nearby Mornington Peninsula, while Madeleine contributed a huge dollop of creamy yogurt from Gippsland Dairy laced with sweet and puckery local rhubarb.

Once the penguin parade concludes, most visitors climb onto tour buses headed for a midnight arrival in Melbourne. But if you come to Phillip Island, think seriously about making it an overnighter. In my case, the stay was as memorable as the island’s famous little denizens.

Tip: There are three different ticketing tiers for the Penguin Parade, including the general viewing deck. But I recommend the new Penguins Plus platform, which gets you even closer to the action.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Nat Geo Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures in Victoria, Australia, on Twitter @anniefitz and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.

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